The World Energy Council (WEC) has existed now for a century, having been founded in 1923 by a visionary named Daniel Dunlop, who foresaw the need for a global organization whose mission is to convene stakeholders to discuss and find ways to resolve problems in the energy space. Never in its history has this non-commercial, non-governmental body been faced with such a broad array of complex, pressing problems as it is today, with the global community embarked upon an ambitious energy transition.
I was fortunate this week to be able to interview Dr. Angela Wilkinson, the sixth secretary general in the WEC’s history, as she prepared to attend next week’s CERA Week event in Houston. I found her in an upbeat mood as she prepared to fly across the pond – her office is in London – for that conference, while also looking ahead to the COP 28 conference later this year in the United Arab Emirates.
“The world is not on track.”
Our interview began with a request for Dr. Wilkinson to provide her general assessment of the pace of this ‘energy transition’ that at least the western world is embarked upon, though much of the rest of the world has yet to come on board. She was frank in her admission that the pace of change is well behind what would need to happen for the world to achieve the net-zero goals laid out in the Paris Accords.
“There’s this global stock-take that will be done by the COP 28 presidency this year and it will show the world is not on track. We don’t need to wait for an assessment to know that,” she says.
“We also must bear in mind that, not only are we not on track to the Paris Agreement, but the Paris agreement doesn’t get us to where we need to go in terms of avoiding the climate catastrophe that people talk about,” she continues. “Who knows what ‘climate catastrophe’ is, but we do know it will involve more extreme weather events. And extreme weather events cost the industry a lot of money. There are costs all round in this transition. If you don’t transition, you might pay the highest price of all. If you do transition, it’s not going to be cheap or easy or as fast or straightforward as many people want it to be.”
She then pauses before adding, “But I wouldn’t say we’ve fallen behind, so much as I’d say we should have started 40 years ago and we’ve never caught up.”
“The arrow of time and energy is never a straight line.”
Along those lines, I asked if she thinks this time gap can be made up with today’s hyper-focus on renewables as the answer. “It’s not a question of just growing renewables as quickly as possible,” she begins. “Renewables today are about electrification. We’ve been going 100 years at the electricity revolution, and we’ve only got to 20% of the system being electrified now. If we hadn’t made oil a strategic resource in the 1930s and ‘40s because of wars, maybe we would have gone further with electrification. But the arrow of time and energy is never a straight line. There’s always detours en route.”
Our conversation next moved to a discussion about previous energy transitions, and the fact that all of them took far longer than the timelines being talked about today. Wilkinson traveled back eight centuries in her remarks.
“In Britain, remember, all state forests are alive because of a coal revolution,” she says. “That transition happened from the 13th to the 16th century. In this country, if we hadn’t had a coal transition, we would not live in an area that has any forests left at all. Oil saved the whales. If we hadn’t had oil, we wouldn’t have any whales in the ocean.”
“Getting renewables to scale is going to take a lot of mining.”
We next moved to unintended consequences, and the voracious appetite by renewables and batteries for an array of critical minerals. “Now, every transition has a lot of benefit, but there’s always some unintended consequences,” Wilkinson says. “Getting renewables to scale is going to take a lot of mining. It’s going to take a lot of energy. It’s going to take a lot of material manufacturing.”
I mentioned my own skepticism that the nations of the west, who almost uniformly exited from the hard rock mining business during the 1980s, ceding that space to China and other developing countries, will suddenly make a U-turn and begin issuing permits for new strip-mining operations for an array of critical minerals to facilitate this transition’s goals. Wilkinson’s answer was interesting.
“It’s a pretty crowded neighborhood in Western Europe if you want to do strip mining,” she says. “But the energy transition isn’t happening in a vacuum. We say we live in an era of grand transitions. It’s a time of energy transition. It’s a transition in industry. It’s a transition in food systems. It’s a transition in economic models as well. These are all going on at the same time. We don’t have a situation where one transition starts and issues and then we move to the next. And in emerging economies, they’re doing all of this in parallel.”
She then moved into a discussion about the need to create a more circular economy, one where recycling of what we have to this point considered to be waste materials in order to reduce some of the need for ramped-up mining activities.
“So, there’s this concept of, are we going to move faster because we develop all these strip mines or are we going to move faster because we’re going to develop a concept of circular economy where actually a lot of the stuff that we need is currently defined as waste. But waste is just something we used to put in the ground, which now we might put into a process.
“So, you know, can we first avoid wasting things? You keep producing waste, but it’s not real waste. It’s actually a useful thing. So, I think will see much more of circularity come in to help us move faster. I think that’s the challenge.”
“These countries need options. They need choices.”
Whenever we talk of mining in the context of energy, the conversation naturally turns to coal, the most extensively mined mineral on earth, as well as the energy source with the heaviest emissions. Noting the growing dichotomy related to coal usage between the western world, which has made great strides in cutting usage in recent decades, and parts of the developing world, where major players like China, India and Pakistan are doubling-down in expanding their own coal use, I asked Wilkinson what might be done to increase the willingness of the developing world to buy into the coal-cutting program?
“I don’t think it’s a question of buy-in. I think it’s a question of patriotism for them,” Wilkinson begins. “It comes down to what other choice do they have? Are they going to tell their citizens to try to chop down the forest to cook food, or do they coal mine because nobody’s given them access to capital, to finance different infrastructure developments, to build the skills and capabilities to run a nuclear power system.
“These countries need options. They need choices,” she continues. “They want choices that are modern, that allow them to develop an industry that helps them move up the value chain in economic development. And if you if you make climate the enemy of development, you end up with coal.”
Bottom Line: These are just a few of the myriad energy-related issues that are top of mind for Dr. Wilkinson as she prepares to be in Houston for the CERA Week Conference held March 6-10, and which she and her fellow delegates must grapple with during the U.N.’s COP 28 Conference in the United Arab Emirates beginning November 30. Given that they are all matters that will significantly impact everyone on the planet in the years to come, it is good to know that a reasonable voice like hers is a part of these deliberations.